This book is born out of lectures on theology and genetics at the University of Chicago, comprised of articles from several different authors within the university-from Biblical Theology to Pediatrics-on what it means to be human in light of the Human Genome Project. The book is broken up into three parts: Part One deals with the science of genetics, Part Two discusses what it means to be human, and Part Three discusses ‘critical issues.’ A quick glance at the profiles of the contributors indicated that this work was approaching the subject of human dignity and the genome from theological perspective(s) that were different from mine, yet there are some insights gained that would certainly fit or cohere with those espousing differing presuppositions and theological starting points. The impetus for this work was inspired in part, says Thistlethwaite, by sparse the attention given to the topics of human beings and human dignity in the 350 page report by the President’s Council on Bioethics entitled Human Cloning and Human Dignity, where less than two pages were set aside, and ironically, ‘human dignity’ was never defined.
In the opening article, Thistlethwaite laments feminist theology’s relative absence from the science-theology dialogue. Much like process theology, she observes that feminist theology has opposed the more traditional model of humanity as static and Lord over creation, espousing instead a ‘species solidarity’ which finds scientific support in the striking genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees. At the same time however, she notes the unique individual genetic distinctiveness provides physical support to counteract the ‘sin’ so common to many women, “the failure to be a self,” and the temptation to “dissolve the uniqueness of their individuality.” (p. 9) More positively, Feminist theology strongly supports the goodness of embodiment-“bodies matter.” Moreover, says Thistlethwaite, since both genetics and theology attempt to answer the question “who is the human being?”, it is imperative that neither discipline continue to work in isolation from one another, given the tremendous potential of applied genetics to relieve human suffering.
Part One is devoted to the scientific issues surrounding genetics, and includes a helpful chapter on the history of science, written from a ‘sympathetic theologian’s’ perspective. Laurel C. Schneider chronicles the history of science from Plato to Freud, noting religion’s changing relationship to science as one moving from cooperation to contentiousness. She sees the reformation as a key factor in the fracturing of the relationship between theology and science, where Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church “led inexorably to the dissolution of the church’s authority over all questions of truth.” (p. 32) The philosophy of Descartes has had a profound effect on how science views the body today, as Descartes’ search for certainty as the starting point of philosophy gave birth to a view of the body-as a machine-that is widely espoused by modern science. A generation later, Newton’s conception of mechanistic universe and a wholly rational God completed the shift toward a science that was capable of answering any question posed by uncovering the laws of the universe. Schneider observes how Darwinian evolution fits within the schema of Newtonian science, and actually privileges humans by explaining their success and survivability, and is therefore closer to a theological anthropology that “literal readers of Genesis 1-2 might appreciate.” (p. 47) Schneider sees the genome project as a new opportunity for scientists and theologians to work as companions in hopes that a collective view of humanity may help clarify both perspectives.
The remainder of Part One is devoted to Mendelian and Post-Mendelian genetics, with articles on each by Lainie Friedman Ross. These articles cover basic terms in genetics and discuss the inheritability of traits and diseases, giving several examples. Ross shows how our increasing understanding of the interworkings of genetics and inheritance have uncovered the complexities in mutations that may or may not be passed to one’s progeny. Ross highlights the fact that many disorders are linked not to one, but in many cases several genes. Ross’ interests lie primarily in the ethics of genetic screening, and the web of relationships that may be affected by the information gained from such screening-do genetic relations create moral obligations? Ross uncovers the inadequacy of the current medical ethical paradigm which focuses solely on the doctor-patient relationship to the exclusion, or at least significant diminishment of, other family relationships. She has largely ignored however, the more fundamental question of whether some information ought to be obtained in the first place.
In Part Two which deals with humanness from a theological perspective, Theodore W. Jennings Jr. looks at the human genome project with particular reference to early Church Father Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man, observing how Gregory consistently sought analogies with the ‘science’ of his day in articulating Christian teaching. Jennings Jr. follows a similar route, and finds the analogies of solidarity, speciation, and individuation as those most relevant for a theological anthropology-solidarity helps re-affirm the goodness of our creatureliness; speciation highlights the profound genetic similarities between ‘races,’ and individuation acknowledges that we are different genetically, suggesting our irreplaceablity. But Jennings also takes sin and our universal need of redemption seriously, noting that the Human Genome Project could prove a ‘willing tool’ to institutions eager only to turn a profit. Moreover, he notes that the ‘human’ Genome Project is actually a “Eurocentrically biased sample” which has the potential of setting up European genetic traits as ‘normal’ with all other diverging from this norm (p. 108). In the second article, biblical theologian Ken Stone looks at the Genome as a text. Stone is primarily interested in the way in which scientific and biblical texts are products of specific cultures. In particular, Stone looks at the quest for the ‘gay gene.’ He argues that there is a confusion between etiological and ethical questions-between questions concerning ‘where things come from or originate’ and questions concerning the right and wrong. Stone believes that the search for a biological cause to homosexuality is an etiological question, and not an ethical one, and are therefore misplaced when used in attempting to answer ethical questions about homosexuality. He looks at several passages in Genesis through an etiological matrix-how cultures give rise to texts. But one wonders if every narrative in the first few chapter of Genesis is only a story of origins to the exclusion of the larger background of good and evil (is the Bible just a text?) Stone is more concerned that a search for the why of homosexuality presupposes a negative social assumption that it should not exist (p. 119). Interestingly, he is more wary of homosexuality being identified as wrong than he is of making use of any potential gene, which, in the eyes of many, would provide biological vindication of homosexual tendencies and practice.
In Part 3 dealing with critical issues, Lee H. Butler Jr. looks at scientific racism and the potential harms and benefits of the Human Genome Project, while Thistlehwaite criticises both the genetic essentialism tendencies of science and the tendencies in theology to emphasize the soul over the body, stressing that any Christian account of humanity in the image of God must account for the goodness of embodiment while allowing for the soul as well has human freedom, along with our fallenness and the social dimension of sin.
Some readers will not agree with some of the presuppositions espoused by those contributing to the theological portion of this discussion, myself included. Yet there were a few helpful theological reminders in this text like the affirmation of embodiment, and the incoherence of genetic determinism, and, our need for universal redemption that no genetic therapy can fix.
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